We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

The false argument for state control from immeasurability

Last night I attended a seminar on education organised by the Social Affairs Unit (there is as yet nothing about this event on their blog), at which the speaker was Francis Gilbert. Gilbert read a bit from his new book, I’m a Teacher, Get Me Out Of Here!, and if this bit was anything to go by, it is a very good book. (See also this posting here earlier this year.)

I will not here recount – and could not hope to recount – everything that was talked about, but I do note with approval that Francis Gilbert, after he had finished reading from his book, invited us to think about how much better education would be if it was run by the man who has recently taken over his local corner shop, and has made a great success of it, and by a few thousand others like him, instead of by the Government.

However, I will focus on one very widespread and wrong clutch of related ideas that cropped up in the course of our discussion. It was said, echoing something that Francis Gilbert himself had said, that education is not “like oil or bread”. The most important qualities of education are beyond measurement or quantification. The thing is just too complicated and … I think that the word ineffable may even have been used. Unlike oil or bread.

The conclusion we were invited to draw from this was that education, unlike oil or bread, cannot be supplied entirely by the free market, as a lot of us, taking our lead from Francis Gilbert, were enthusiastically recommending. It is just too complicated a thing to dole out in easily measurable little packets, like oil or bread.

But it simply does not follow that because something is complicated and immeasurable, even ineffable, that it cannot and should not be supplied by tradesmen. All products worth bothering with have intangible, ineffable qualities, which are almost impossible to measure. Oil and bread are not “like oil and bread” either. They too have mysteries and intangibles attached to them.

Closely related to the entirely correct claim that education is a very complicated thing was the point, also made, that “people do not know what is good for them”, when it comes to education. A complicated service cannot be a mere product, because the consumers will not know what to pick. They need to be told that (in the words of Claire Fox while putting this argument) “Mozart is better than Hip Hop”, but will not want to be told this.

The idea that authority (as opposed to raw power) can never flourish in a free market is likewise very widespread, and likewise utterly wrong. I buy all kinds of immensely complicated products, and I am constantly seeking out authoritative guidance about which ones are best. Often I do not understand the reasons why they are best. I am glad merely to have detected a consensus among the authorities that product X is indeed excellent. The very existence of the institution of the specialist periodical press is proof beyond all doubt that authority and the free market go hand in hand.

I did what I could very briefly to challenge these notions. I said the “oil is not oil either” thing, and also waved my little digital camera. (This is hugely complicated object freely available in many competing versions in shops, yet it is clearly not something any government would have come up with. I chose the one I was waving not on the basis of my own non-existent knowledge of such devices, but on the basis of reviews written by people who do understand these things.) I might also have seized hold of one of the many wine bottles on the table we were seated around. Was there ever a trade – and it definitely is a trade – with so complicated and so ineffable a product as the wine trade? Yet this is one of the oldest trades of all.

The wine trade also points us towards another important point. Wine, however ineffable, can, to some extent anyway, be measured – in gallons, in bottles, in costs, in profits and in losses, and the same applies to education. The fact that not everything about education (or oil, or bread, or digital cameras, or wine) can be satisfactorily measured, does not mean that measurement can contribute nothing at all to education. You can still measure numbers of pupils, hours of teaching, pupil satisfaction, parental satisfaction, and exam success, in ways that are way better than just guessing. If a school is a business, you can most definitely measure income, and costs. No business would ever use the impossibility of completely accurate and completely uncontroversial measurement as a reason to abandon all effort to measure at all.

Yes, there is a danger, in any business, that the measurable will be concentrated upon at the expense of things which are beyond measurement but perhaps in the long run more important. But this is a familiar idea in the literature of business management and in the experience of real world business managers.

I would go further, and say that governments are at their worst and most bureaucratic when what they are trying to do is least easy to measure. Tradesmen can always fall back on the notion that their customers are always right, even if they cannot ever be entirely sure of what they are right about. But what is a government to do when the numbers mean nothing? (A few years back, I did a whole Libertarian Alliance piece about the absurdities of government support for that most ineffable and immeasurable of things, Art.) The fact that, as I say, almost nothing can be measured with complete accuracy means that governments tend inexorably tend to screw up everything that they do. Far more than traders, governments depend on their precious statistics. If a trader makes a nice loaf of bread (or a nice school), and people like it, he is in business, provided only that the Government does not stop him. Government itself is not like that at all.

By the way, I do not want to present Francis Gilbert as a pure free marketeer. The excerpt from his book had been all about the waste and incompetence of state provision – inspectors, second-guessers, form-fillers and bureaucrats of all kinds crawling about doing very little – yet his final recommendation was that the state should concentrate on providing very good nurseries for all the badly brought up children who were, he felt, almost beyond getting a good education when they first arrived at school. But a nationalised nursery industry would merely pile bureaucratic miseries on top of current family failures.

To be fair to Gilbert, I felt that the point he was really making was that “we”, the concerned classes, need to think and worry most about those very early years, where improving things will do the most good, rather than that the Government would necessarily do this job as well as he would want them to, if they were to tackle it. He is a product of a statist intellectual culture, and is not in the habit if distinguishing between: “we” should do something, and: The Government should do it. In any case, we put him right.

17 comments to The false argument for state control from immeasurability

  • Education isn’t my bailiwick, but I think you’re on the money here. In addition to the points you raise, consider that there are already free-market benchmarks. In the U.S. most private schools spend much less per pupil than the local publics do. They have to be budget-conscious, since the customers are paying in effect double for the service. We also have publicly funded charter schools, which are independent (to varying degrees) of the public schools bureaucracy. Managements have the right to hire and fire teachers, to set curriculum, etc. Private and charter public schools are measured via testing, and are ultimately answerable to parents. In short, models exist for good schools that can be independent of government bureaucracy, are cost-effective, and achieve results equal to and in most cases better than comparable public schools. In the U.S., public school teachers send their own children to private schools at about double the rate of the general population. Presumably they know something that their unions wish not to publicly discuss. Also on this point, what about colleges? What could be more ‘ineffable’ than a college education? Yet somehow we all seem to be able to select among a vast selection of public and private institutions, and have pretty good information to guide our selections.

    An argument against private education is that those schools would siphon off the “best” students from the public system. The charter school experience here, where children are often disadvantaged, gives the lie to this. Others will argue that some parents will not choose wisely. That’s hardly an argument for tethering all children to mediocre (or worse) public schools. In fact, competition should serve to make the publics more responsive to the needs of their marketplace. Information about competitive schools will be made available, because it will be in the interest of the schools to market themselves. Average consumers can compare automobiles and cameras and vacation packages and colleges, because information providers can make money serving that information need. Any time a vast slice of the public needs to make major decisions, a market for information about the decision emerges. In very short order parents will be able to access test scores by subjects, percentages of graduates going on to college, parental satisfaction ratings and the like. This is the kind of information a monopoly provider has little interest in making available, as our school testing controversy illustrates. That’s why I’m able to select the best auto or camera or computer for my needs, without knowing the intricacies of their design and manufacture. At most there could be a government role in quality assurance — for example standardized testing to ensure that minimum academic knowledge is being conferred. In the U.S. private schools are accredited by a state-mandated process. Ultimately parents would probably insist on some kind of accreditation mechanism even without government. Quality assurance is a good selling point. As the post on your ed. blog about the Tomlinson report shows , government can muck that up too. In the U.S., educational standards have been watered down to the point that one can graduate high school ignorant of mathematics beyond simple arithmetic, and barely literate.

    I would have more sympathy for the ‘ineffability’ argument if most schools were performing at or above par, and if most students and parents were satisfied with the educational product. A government near-monopoly also means every school has to teach a curriculum designed to a generic student. Innovation is suffocated by the one-size-fits-all approach, and by union seniority, tenure and work rules. That alone should argue for launching independent schools.

    This battle, however, is political. In the U.S. the public school unions have enormous power. Serious talk about school choice is characterized in our press as the equivalent of throwing poor children to the wolves. Things may be slowly changing. Our Democrats in Congress opposed a limited voucher program for the Washington D.C. schools last year. That opposition may be costing them black votes. Minority parents are beginning to realize that their children are disproportionately harmed by the poor public schools.

  • H.

    One difference between oil and education is that no one is obliged to buy oil, but parents are legally obliged to provide an education for their children. In other words, the state will intervene if a child is not being given an education. Let’s say all education was private: that would mean that all parents would need to fund their children’s education on a user-pays basis (or educate their children themselves, which comes to the same thing since you are giving up potentially money-earning time). What would happen when parents couldn’t or wouldn’t provide the funds? Either the children go uneducated, or the state would have to take responsibility for educating them. In which case at the very least you’d need a residual state school system.

    It seems to me that either some level of education is obligatory, in which case some level of state education is potentially necessary; or that educating one’s children shouldn’t be a legal obligation. Should parents’ rights not to educate their children trump minors’ rights to be educated?

  • R C Dean

    Where did this “right” to an education come from?

  • H.

    RC Dean, are you suggesting that it should be perfectly legal for parents to stop their children from learning to read and write, for instance? Parents have legal authority over their children, and that means they have legal responsibilities as well. In this day and age, depriving a child of a basic education will in the long term cause suffering and impede their ability to act as a free agent in society. That’s my argument for a child’s “right” to basic education. If you accept that point, then you must accept that as a last resort at least, the state should and must be able to provide education.

  • //the state should and must be able to provide education.//
    Perhaps “the state should and must be able to fund education.” It need not get involved in the administration of it.

  • Richard Easbey

    Nope, H. R.C. Dean is right: there is no “right” to an education. Let’s talk about this in terms of the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights; as a good example, let’s use the First Amendment–the right to freedom of religion, free speech, etc. You have a right to express yourself and say anything you want (let’s ignore the shouting “fire” in a crowded theater just for now). But that doesn’t mean you have a right to an auditorium and an audience, or a printing press, or in this day and age a computer and your own web page. Why? Because if rights are thought of this way, then anything you can’t provide for yourself to exercise your “right” must be provided by someone else. After all, it’s your right, right? The same with education; you don’t have a right to pick someone else’s pocket to provide a benefit for your children. But do you honestly think there are parents out there who DON’T want their children educated? And who won’t make the necessary sacrifices to see to it that they are? Don’t all parents want their children to do better than they are? I detect a bit of smug elitism in your post….

  • H.

    I accept your slight editing, Weasel – the state should and must be able to fund education. Basically it comes down to the same thing, ie taxpayers should and must be willing to fund education if they want the state to enforce a child’s right to education. If this responsibility is delegated to the private sector, well and good. But that is not a true free market solution. That’s like the NHS outsourcing its cleaning services. My basic point stands: providing education is simply not analogous to providing oil or other consumer products, because of the obligation to ensure that minors are provided with a basic education.

  • H.

    Richard writes: “But do you honestly think there are parents out there who DON’T want their children educated?”

    Of course I do! There are plenty of highly dysfunctional parents out there, people with drug or drink problems, people with mental problems, people with severe depression, people who just don’t give a fuck, people who abandon their kids, etc., etc. Get real fer chrissakes!

    Children do not have the same legal status as adults. They are wards of their parents, other relatives, adopted parents, or as a last resort the state. Whomever they are wards of, they are expected to be provided with reasonable care. If the state has to take over responsibility for their well-being in any respect, then it is indeed the taxpayers who foot the bill. Are you suggesting that if all else fails a child, the state shouldn’t step in? And are you suggesting that in such circumstances, the state shouldn’t provide funds for a child’s basic education?

  • Rob Read

    I think He may mean that “RIGHT” is the wrong word, as entitlement is more accurate.

    I would say that Parents have a RESPONSIBILITY to ensure there child is educated. When parents breach this responsibility then the state should step in.

    The absolutist libertarian paradigm although philosophically complete will never win power in the real world. You have to convince the mob they will be better off…

  • All this leads back to the conclusion that education is like “oil and bread”, because there are also dysfunctional parents out there who do not feed their kids (hell, there are parents who actually kill their kids).

    I was recently having the same thought about healthcare: how is it different from basic commodities like food, clothing and housing? I think it is not.

    The sad reality is that there is no way society can completely eradicate poverty. Managing the market does not work – we’ve seen it proved. However, free market still cannot ensure that everyone is fed, clothed and healed. There will always be people who are unable to earn enough money to take care of themselves (for various reasons). Taxing the rest of society to help them impedes the free market, which in turn makes everyone poorer.

    Another problem is that both education and healthcare are becoming more expensive as science and technology develop. So there will always be better education and healthcare for those who can afford it.

  • Rob Read

    Loans not grants they are coercion neutral over the long term.

  • limberwulf

    Certainly there are parents who would prefer that their children not be educated, or that would not fund such a thing themselves. The idea that this should be an illegal act is something that I would entertain, but the idea that the state should fund it I disagree with. One of the aspects of “immeasureablility” in education is the concept of what is defined as “education”. I would submit that wht many children might learn in a non-school environment my well be more useful in life than all the Mozart classes in the world.

    The dependency on formal education in this country I think has been detrimental to productivity and educational quality. There are many students who are only in school because they must be, and they are not learning well at all (especially at the college level). Degrees and papers and certifications do not gaurantee ability. Getting rid of much of the beurocracy of formal education may well make true education far more “measureable”.

  • Benedict

    I would like to address the differences between the consumption of oil or bread, and education. I come at this from an economist’s perspective.

    The consumption of oil and bread do not have any significant spillover effects. By spillover effects I mean your consumption of bread does not make anybody else better off or worse off. Whereas, the consumption of education has significant spillover effects. The higher educational attainment of one’s neighbors the better off you’ll be, i.e. higher productivity and thus wages.

    The problem, therefore, is that when people choose to consume education they will choose to consume to little because they fail to internalize these beneficial spillover affects.

    The role of government in this quasi-market failure has been to both fund and provide education. While I see a role for subsidizing education, I can’t explain why governments must provide education.

  • majorchuck

    Here is an article by Daniel Quinn — Author of the Ishmael series (which I highly recommend reading) about the real purpose of our school system.
    Schooling: The Hidden Agenda

  • Ken

    “The consumption of oil and bread do not have any significant spillover effects. By spillover effects I mean your consumption of bread does not make anybody else better off or worse off. Whereas, the consumption of education has significant spillover effects. The higher educational attainment of one’s neighbors the better off you’ll be, i.e. higher productivity and thus wages.”

    The same thing happens when your neighbor upgrades his factory. His productivity goes up, whatever he was making becomes more abundant, and if his product helps make you more productive, then he’s also increased your productivity.

    And yet we’re content to let the plain old profit motive lead people to modernize their factories, while presuming we need subsidy and even coercion to lead people to take advantage of the profit opportunities resulting from upgrading one’s mind.

  • Benedict


    The difference between your neighbors consumption of capital, as in your example, is that he or she will fully internalize those beneficial effects in the direct form of profits, including weighing the opportunity cost of not investing elsewhere, and the market is working wonderfully.

    With education there is no indication as to the amount of benefits quite as clear as profits or returns on investments. For example, I occasionally hear the complaint- why should I pay school taxes,I don’t have any kids in school?

    The answer is that you don’t want to live with neighbors whose kids are dumb as posts, because both you and your neighbors will be worse off. Of course, with government provision of education, sadly, we still turn out students dumb as posts, but that doesn’t undermine the argument for subsidizing education only that government should get out of the business of providing it.

    IMHO at the end of the day, the debate on education should center around two things; just how much is necessary to subdize education so that people fully internaize those benefits (it could be as little as an educational advertisement campaign), and who should provide education. The supplanting of a market failure with a government failure is not a solution.

  • And are you suggesting that in such circumstances, the state shouldn’t provide funds for a child’s basic education?

    Yes, that would be my view. It is the role of charities to clean up after feckless parents.